Drowning children and the love of God

From this work of fiction:

The overt meaning of “singer” is “someone who sings”.

The kabbalistic meaning is “someone who tries to be good.”

This reading we derive from Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher who explored the depths of moral obligation. He imagined a man in a very nice coat walking by a pond. In the pond he sees a young child drowning, screaming for help. The man is quite a good swimmer and could easily save the child, but his nice coat would be ruined and would cost him $100 to replace. He decides he doesn’t want to ruin his coat and continues on his way, leaving the child to drown. Is this morally wrong?

Of course it is, said Singer, and this is important. It establishes a general moral principle that if you get the opportunity to save a child’s life for $100 you must take it. Yet we have very many opportunities to save a child’s life for $100. There are children starving in India; $100 would buy them food. There are children dying of malaria; $100 would buy them medication. There are children cowering in war zones; $100 might buy them a ticket to safety. If you buy a nice coat for $100 instead of giving it to charity, you’re making the same decision as the man in the story. Indeed, if you use your money for anything other than charity, you’re making that same decision – preferring your luxuries to a chance to avert innocent deaths.

This was not a popular message. His opponents condemned his particular brand of academic philosophy, saying that the time-tested moral truths of religion ought to be enough for anybody. They might have done well to read their Bibles a little closer. Matthew 19:21: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell everything you have and give the money to the poor, then follow me.”

Singer called the movement that grew up around him “effective altruism”, and its rallying cry was that one ought to spend every ounce of one’s energy doing whatever most relieves human suffering, most likely either feeding the poor or curing various tropical diseases. Again, something his opponents rejected as impossible, unworkable, another example of liberal fanaticism. Really? Every ounce of your energy? Again, they could have just read their Bibles. Deuteronomy 6:5: “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

I have… perhaps less a belief than a thought experiment. It goes like this: suppose reincarnation is real. But it’s not something that happens linearly through time, where you die and then get born as someone else chronologically later. Suppose, instead, that you eventually get reborn as every human being who has ever existed or will ever exist, one after the other. And not just every human being: every living thing. Sooner or later you will be that homeless person asking for change you walk past on the street, that prisoner on Death Row for murder, whoever that prisoner killed, and so on. A child starving to death. Every child that has ever starved to death. Every factory-farmed chicken who doesn’t have room to turn around. Every victim of rape or torture. Every rapist and torturer.

This is what sin is and why I don’t believe Jesus’ death saved us from it: if you hit someone, someone gets hurt; if you lie, someone (eventually you) gets lied to, if you murder, someone’s life is cut short. The consequence of sin is literally the consequence of sin. You suffer for your sin because your sin is literally anything that creates suffering, and because you are everyone and everyone is you.

(I had a very difficult time with my Intro to Theology class. We kept having to wrestle with all the wrong questions, drawing upon all the wrong answers. Do you know of a theologian I could quote who says this about sin? I wished I did.)

The hypothetical man in the coat should jump in the water to save the child, not out of some abstract notion of altruism or ethics but because one day he will be the child, and the child’s mother, and everybody else connected to the child, and the inconvenience of a ruined coat is so, so much smaller than the agony of having your child die or being the child who could have had a full, long life and instead is going to have a very short one. (I am putting the parents’ suffering first, but really most people would put nearly any form of suffering below dying, in terms of what they definitely don’t want to have happen to them. This actually kind of gets broken in the reincarnation thought experiment: presumably if you die you just get to start over with a new life, so is it really that bad? And then, everybody dies eventually, so thinking of death as the ultimate worst thing that can happen to you just means you are powerless to prevent the worst from happening.)

(Also, the pragmatist in me: why doesn’t he just take off his coat? I mean, coats can get pretty heavy when wet and if you’re carrying a child while swimming you really don’t want any extra weight and drag, so he’d probably want to do that anyways.)

So, on the one hand Singer is completely right, without exception or caveat. On the other hand:

  1. There is burnout, depression, being overwhelmed with hopelessness, and for that matter things one can spend money on that aren’t nice coats: focusing exclusively on alleviating suffering can lead to being less effective at alleviating suffering, due to decreased personal power or efficacy. I have lived this. Maybe I am still living this. As an extreme example, someone who gives all of her money to charity even to the exclusion of buying food will starve to death, and be unable to continue giving of her time and money. This especially gets complicated for people who aren’t islands: surely saving someone else’s child’s life is more important than buying your child a coat, and yet your kid should probably have decent clothes and maybe a few nice things too. Setting aside that concern (maybe you don’t have a child), “normal” people who consider the alleviation of suffering globally to be one small priority among many tend to socially separate out from people who are primarily focused on the alleviation of suffering, which makes it rather hard to draw upon the resources of those people you’ve stopped having lunch with. Sometimes pushing the vast majority who give a tiny fraction of their available money and effort to give a slightly larger fraction a small amount of the time, and sharing kitten pictures with them on Facebook and other such non-alleviation-of-suffering-focused activities the rest of the time, is more effective than pouring your (a single person’s) life savings into malaria funding and never talking about anything else.
  2. There is the charity thing. If you consider the existence of poverty and malaria to be simply about the absence of things, charity makes sense. Some people think that the presence of things like colonialism and racism and globalization and war and power and political and economic systems generally might have something to do with it, which can make charity not necessarily the most effective approach.
  3. There is the question of whether the alleviation of suffering is the only meaningful goal. What about the presence of joy, authenticity, fulfillment, or connection? If you found a genie that could grant you three wishes and you wished for the end of suffering, what you might well get is the end of the world. No world, no suffering.
  4. There is also to some degree a difference between seeing a child directly in front of you that you know you can save, and hearing indirectly about children on the opposite side of the world. Emotionally there’s less of a sense of connection, which may be seen as invalid, but for practical purposes there’s also an epistemology issue: if you never see the kid and have never been to where the child lives, how sure are you that the $100 is doing what it’s supposed to do?

Here’s the Six of Pentacles from my preferred Tarot deck. What I hate about this card is he has six coins and is only sharing one of them, so all those reaching hands will only get a small fraction of a coin whereas our Rich Philanthropist is still getting to live the good life with a whole five to himself still. And he gets to think of himself as generous. And yet in the world we live in, giving away one sixth of one’s wealth is extremely generous, and more than most well-off people do. And if he keeps five coins, he will keep being able to give a little bit at a time, perhaps. So that’s nice.

  1. ae090464c96f286f505c68db60578de7.jpg

Here’s the Four of Pentacles from the same deck. The central figure has fewer coins than our philanthropist, and yet he’s the stingy miser. Weird.


There is surely something massively inconsistent with this.

Maybe these are choices that no one should have to make. And yet there is still the question, if you want to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength,” what exactly does that call on one to do?


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